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Michael Beddow

Colleagues will be sorry to learn of the death, on 2 September 2019, of Michael Beddow, former Professor and Head of the Department of German Language and Literature. The following tribute has been provided by former colleague and friend, Dr Syd Donald.

A native Lancastrian, Michael Beddow went up to St John's College, Cambridge in 1966 on an Open Scholarship to read Modern Languages. He was awarded a Double First in the Modern and Medieval Languages Tripos in 1969, stayed on to take a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (Distinction for practical teaching), and became a Research Fellow at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. The research for his PhD on Thomas Mann and the Traditions of the Picaresque Novel and the Bildungsroman included a year at the University of Tübingen as Foundation Scholar of the King Edward VII British-German Foundation. Following posts as Staff Fellow and University Assistant Lecturer in German at Cambridge, and Lecturer in German at King's College London, he was appointed to the Chair of German Language and Literature at Leeds in 1986. He took early retirement in 1998 to pursue a career in IT consultancy.

Michael’s twelve years at Leeds were marked by rapid and profound change, notably the massive post-1992 expansion of higher education in England, and in Leeds, radical curricular restructuring in the form of modularisation. Michael drafted and coordinated modularisation proposals for the entire School of Modern Languages, a daunting task calling for acute powers of analysis and a sure grasp of complex and often abstruse detail. But it was in his response to the problems facing traditional language and literature courses in the nineties that Michael's far-sightedness was most in evidence. His response to the challenge of maintaining standards, numbers and the vitality of the discipline, whilst adapting to a more diverse student intake, was to radically overhaul the undergraduate curriculum and to adopt an innovative approach to language teaching, focused more on the contemporary use of language, which was consistently praised by teaching quality assessors, external examiners and students alike, and which was arguably the central factor in the Department's continued success in recruiting large numbers of highly motivated Single-Honours students in a nationally declining market.

A gifted, witty and popular teacher, Michael also introduced or fostered a whole range of new courses to complement the best of the existing provision, including his hugely popular Germany on the World Wide Web, a course which uniquely provided participants with a grounding in the technical and political background to internet provision in Germany, but combined with the practical skills to write and manage websites and understand the aims of specific German-language web providers.

He was also involved in a technical capacity in the development in the nineties of the School of Modern Languages MA in Applied Translation Studies, a professionally-oriented MA which uniquely incorporated the then embryonic computerised translation tools that were starting to appear on the market. As the MA took off and needed more technical support, Michael stepped in to teach it, and then to set up and run the servers to deliver it in a networked environment. MAATS was probably the first programme in the world to teach translation technologies. His role was absolutely mission-critical, and without his tireless support it would not have been possible to sustain what was from the start (and still is) a highly successful MA.

A keen supporter of the Enterprise in Higher Education initiative, Michael and like-minded colleagues rapidly established a national reputation for their work on experience logs, since established in places far beyond Leeds as an invaluable tool for self-development in the context of the year abroad. He encouraged what was at that time a novelty, the acquisition of transferable skills and an awareness of the links between his students’ academic learning and the world of work, and helped the Department prepare students for the first City and Guilds Licentiateships in Transferable Skills ever to be awarded on the basis of overseas work placements.

Michael was an international authority in his particular fields (Goethe, Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf and the impact of modernity on German literature). When he retired in 1998, he left behind a modern Department of German that was the envy of departments up and down the country. But he was now about to embark on a second and in many ways even more distinguished career. His interest in computing dated back to his Cambridge undergraduate days, and had indeed underpinned many of the innovations he brought to German at Leeds, and now he could devote himself seriously to web development. His consummate skills as a web programmer and server administrator quickly attracted the interest of some quite disparate communities: the Anglo-Norman Dictionary, the premier online dictionary of medieval French as used in Britain; the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism; and the CJKV-English Dictionary. Applying his mastery of XSLT (a programming language that takes XML data and outputs it as an HTML web page), he took a substantial lexicographical data set that included Sinitic scripts, Kana and Hangeul and built a full web application, complete with updatable indexes, fast searches in multiple languages, and much more. For almost twenty years he maintained and elaborated this website, enabling inter alia the expansion of the database from an initial 5,000 entries to 130,000+ and still growing.

But Michael was no ‘mere’ programmer. A man of boundless curiosity, Michael next developed an interest in the logic and philosophy of Buddhism, whilst simultaneously teaching himself Tagalog and Korean far beyond a command of vocabulary and grammar, to a level of fluency where he was able to appreciate Korean television free of subtitles! Not content with this, throughout this time he was also supporting work on the Anglo-Norman Dictionary, again in a technical capacity and through his knowledge of the subject-matter. His contribution to this project is best summarised by one of its co-authors, Professor Andrew Rothwell, a former Leeds colleague: ‘The A-ND … would quite simply not exist without his technical and intellectual brilliance…. He also knows an immense amount about the academic content of the Dictionary, and is probably the only person in the world who could have guided the project in both aspects as authoritatively, and diplomatically, as he has done.’

Michael Beddow was surely sui generis, or, as his erstwhile colleagues would say, ‘ein Unikum.’

He is survived by his widow, Helen, and their son, Andrew.